I don't know what it's like to love someone with an eating disorder. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to watch someone you love destroy themselves a little by little every day. It must be an awful and helpless feeling.
Although I don't know what it's like to love someone with an eating disorder, I do know what it's like to be someone with an eating disorder who is loved.
I became bulimic when I was 14 years old. I didn't fully take control of my disease until I was 21 years old. That seven years I spent wrecking havoc on my body. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating and then purging (vomiting) to prevent weight gain. That means a constant cycle of eating more than you could ever think possible, and then throwing up afterwards. It's a painful and life-long disease.
But that's not what we are here to talk about. We are here to talk about what to do when you find out that someone you love has an eating disorder.
What Not to Do
I know from experience what works, and what doesn't work. Here's the list of intervention methods I've experienced in my 7 years of being sick.
1.) Don't Use Force
I've had mothers, boyfriends, and friends try to force me, physically, to stay away from the bathroom after eating.
Not only does this not work, it's not practical. You can't possibly keep me from the bathroom all the time. Even if you do manage to keep me away for a couple of hours, I'm still going to try to purge anyway.
The other problem with this method is that it fills the bulimic with rage and frustration. I've been known to just throw up wherever I was if I was being physically restricted.
If you need any more reason not to resort to this tactic, know that if you keep your loved one physically restrained, they will resort to diuretics, laxatives, diet pills, and anything else they can think of to mitigate the damage they think has been done by not purging (if they haven't already).
Force is a measure that can only be taken if you and your loved one decide that it's time for hospitalization. Let the professionals handle the manhandling. You will just end up alienating your loved one.
2.) Don't Try to Educate Them. It's Patronizing.
When you get to year 4 or 5 of your eating disorder, you know everything about it. You know more than you care to know.
You know that you are hurting yourself. You know the risks of heart and other vital organ failure. You are aware that your stomach can rupture at any time, that your Esophagus can rupture as well. You see your cheeks swelling and you feel yourself weakening, but none of that matters to you. The only thing that matters is losing weight. The number on the scale.
This is why trying to tell your loved one what they are doing to themselves is ridiculous if you have just found out a few years after the symptons started.
They've educated themselves, I guarantee it.
3.) Ultimatums or Insults
Stop throwing up or I'll kick you out.
If you think this is a good way to lose weight you're an idiot, and I know you're actually a smart person.
Stop throwing up or I'll break up with you.
Stop throwing up or you're going to get kicked off the team.
I've heard them all. At first I say that I'll stop fully planning on doing just that. Then I'll say that I'll stop knowing that I'll just have to hide my tracks a bit better. Eventually I'll just say fine and accept whatever happens.
People without eating disorders don't understand how important the ritual is. It's more important than their own life; what makes you think that any other loss would change their minds?
This can come about two ways.
Either the person that's guilting you is telling you how much you are hurting them, or they will tell you that you are hurting everyone around you.
We usually don't understand why you're hurting so much, because it really has nothing to do with you.
More importantly, we feel bad about it, but not bad enough to stop. There's only one thing that can make us stop. We have to choose it. We have to want it so bad that we are willing to do anything. We have to come to dread whatever ritual it is that we've performed for the last several years.
5.) Scare Tactics
A scare tactic looks like this:If you don't stop, you're going to die. Or it might look like this: If you keep on binging and purging, you might harm your system so much that you will never be able to have children.
It's usually something more weighty than the regular harmful symptoms and ultimatums.
In my experience, the only time this works is when you're in the hospital bed and a doctor tells you very seriously that you are near death.
There are times when a bulimic might actually feel like they want to die. Sometimes they do feel this way. Sometimes they think they feel it, and they change their mind once they see that they are actually dying. Either way, the approach is ineffective.
What you can do
You might be thinking right now 'well what can I do to help?' It's difficult, but it's not impossible. Here are a few things that you should do.
1.) Never talk about weight, beauty, or food.
Never make any comments about their weight. Don't make comments about your weight or anyone else's weight. Even fictional characters.
Don't tell them how skinny they look, don't tell them that they look the same anyway. For God's sake never tell them that they are getting fatter.
Don't make comments like 'those jeans are really lose on you' or 'these are fat free chips' or anything related to food, weight, or beauty.
It doesn't matter what you say, the conclusion in your loved one's head is 'eat less.'
2.) Avoid the Scale at All Costs
Take the scale out of the bathroom. If you live with this person, throw away the scale and make sure they don't bring in a new one. If you don't live with them, tell whoever does live with them to throw away their scale.
Also, if you loved one is under age, tell the doctor to never show them their weight. They should not face the scale, and the nurse should be completely silent throughout the entire process. This is very important, because that number is what everything hinges on for an eating disordered person.
If your loved one isn't underaged, I would try to tell their doctor about it. Their doctor won't be able to tell you anything, but she might just listen. I can't be sure how this works, but it's worth a try.
3.) Learn how to shut up and listen. If you must talk, only ask questions.
If they ever talk to you about it, for the love of all that is good in the world, don't do any of the following:
- Push them into getting help
- Tell them what they can do to make it better
- Tell them that you understand. You don't.
As a matter of fact, try not to say anything that's a statement, especially a judgmental statement.
Questions work well when they aren't patronizing or leading.
For example, if your loved one says that they are obsessed with eating, don't respond with 'Why would you be with obsessed with eating? You know that doesn't make sense.' That would be patronizing and annoying. Do respond with 'Really? What is that like?' or 'What does it feel like when you start obsessing.' You should be trying to understand them, not trying to change them or invalidate their feelings.
4.) Act Natural
Behave normally around them, and set a good example without vocalizing.
Don't eye them suspiciously every time you find them in the kitchen after 10PM.
Don't ask them why they are going to the bathroom during a meal.
Don't look at them funny after they get back.
Don't tell them how incredibly healthy a meal is, or how great xyz workout is.
Just be there for them. The more you stress them out, the worse they will get.
5.) See a counselor if you feel like you can't handle it.
My mother did this when she had exhausted all the above. It was hard for her to sit back and watch me die little by little every day, but ultimately, it had to be my choice. You can't fix your loved one, but you can be there for them. Making sure that you stay mentally healthy is the best way to do that.
I hope that this helps you handle the situation that you're in. I've been symptom free for 5 years and it's only because I wanted out of the cycle, not because of what someone did or said.
Remember that I was a pure bulimic. I can't be sure, but there may be some differences when it comes to helping a person with Bulimia Nervosa or Anorexia Nervosa. For one thing, bulimia isn't usually fatal, but anorexia is a different story. If your loved one suffers from anorexia I know that all of the things I've listed for helping will apply to them, but they may be others that I don't know about.
Never forget that you have no real control over your loved one's disease. Just like you have no control over cancer. It is a disease and you should treat it as such.